The Annual Asian American Showcase begins May 17th at the Gene Siskel Film Center. Check here for films and dates!
Can you tell us a little about the Asian American Showcase?
The Showcase was founded in 1995 by Sooyoung Park, William Shin (both of the indie rock band SEAM) and Ben Kim (music journalist) after they had release “Ear of the Dragon”, the first compilation CD featuring Asian American rock bands. The CD did well and they took a handful of the bands that were featured on the CD on a national tour which gain much media attention, including a segment featuring them on MTV. It was on that success that they thought they could help other Asian Americans artists such as filmmakers and actors, writers and poets, visual artists (painters and graphic designers)…we’ve covered just about every form of media art throughout the year. Besides visual art shows, we’ve had rock and jazz concerts, book and poetry readings, live performance and stage readings. The idea was to highlight these artists, not only to mainstream America, but also to our people, to help break the myths and stereotypes that we are only doctors, lawyers and ninjas. The films we screen reflect who we really are…not Hollywood caricatures of Asians with bad accents.
Besides giving support to the artist, we hope to provide positive roles models to other Asian Americans, and to show them that they can pursue the “arts”. When we started, the internet wasn’t quite the resource center that it is now…and it was a lot harder to find out about stuff then. Our festival provided that type of information not just locally, but nationally as well. For the longest time, we were the only festival that only screened films by and or about Asian Americans, meaning we do not show foreign / international movies. That’s just not who we are, and plus those films and directors have other venues and outlets to screen at. Our intent is to help promote and support our up and coming people who might not have a chance otherwise, and also to help show the difference between Asian and Asian American.
You've been the Executive Director of the Foundation for Asian American Independent Media since 2001. While in that role, have you seen things get better for Asian American filmmakers? Or has the struggle to get Asian American films made stayed the same?
Firstly, I don’t think of myself as being an “Executive Director”. I originally found out about the festival through music. I was a fan of the band SEAM, and came to the Showcase not really knowing what was happening. I was expecting to see “Foreign” films, and was totally blown away by seeing images and characters who looked like me and spoke like me. At the time I was into the Chicago indie rock scene and spent many nights in rock clubs being the only Asian, so I kind of always felt out of place. I didn’t self-identify as being Asian American either, but coming to the festival and being around not only similar minded, but similar looking people, both on the screen and off was kind of cool…I didn’t feel out of place anymore. I was hooked! The next year, I tried to see almost everything they were showing…feature, doc, or shorts program, I didn’t care…I just wanted to soak it all up. Being at the festival so much, I eventually became friendly with Sooyoung, Billy, and Ben and would try and help out when I was down there. Sometimes I would take tickets or shoot some photos for them…I was an incidental volunteer. Soon Sooyoung and Billy moved out of state for jobs and asked if I would help Ben run the festival. Eventually Ben moved too…so I sort of just inherited the Showcase…which if fine. It’s a labor of love and not a job. I don’t get paid to do it, I’m an auto mechanic by day and run the Showcase, because, I guess I can. And I really believe in what the Showcase does and stands for, and like helping people when we can. So in a lot of ways…I’m still a volunteer…but now for the filmmakers and artists!
As for the question of things getting better for Asian American filmmakers…that’s a hard question to answer because the overall nature of how films are made and distributed has changed. Because of digital video getting better, it’s easier in a lot of ways to make a film now days and because of that, a lot more films are being made…but it doesn’t mean they are all good though. Also funding a film would be a major hurdle for most, but with Kickstarter and crowd funding it’s made it more possible for people to get the money. So I think there are much more opportunities for the Asian American directors to get films made, and the quality of directors have gotten much better too. Also you don’t necessarily have to do theatrical now days either, because of VOD (video on demand), streaming and straight to DVD, there are still ways to get your movie seen. The struggle will always be there, until one flim breaks out big and makes money. The Asian American community is strange in some ways and it hard to get everyone on board to support one thing (say a film) because there are so many different communities involved in “Asian America” and not one thing will satisfy everyone. If we could rally together like say the African American or Latino communities…we could get bigger films made or at least better distribution. But until then, it will always be a struggle. Money talks…
It’s not to say that the films are not good, but more because these films just get lost in the “Hollywood shuffle”. If a film has Asian faces and language, Hollywood markets it as Foreign, but if it has Asian faces but they speak English, Hollywood doesn’t know how to sell it. That’s why our festival is important, it shows that people want to see these movies, regardless of what the people may look like. None of the films we are showing are subtitled. In my recent memory, I can only think of 2 actual Asian American films to get bigger Hollywood distribution – Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” (MTV films), and Alice Wu’s “Saving Face” (Sony Classics), and “Saving Face" was marketed as a foreign film and sold better to a non-Asian audience. On the upside, I know of plenty of Asian American directors who are working, so that’s a good sign, and the other night when I was watching the trailers before IRONMAN 3 (yes, I see blockbuster films too!) I saw 2 films directed by former Showcase directors…Justin Lin and Sheldon Candis…I did feel a bit of pride knowing that our support early on in their careers might have helped them get to do these Hollywood films!
I think you have an outstanding lineup this year! I've been hearing a lot about "Seeking Asian Female" after the NPR story, and the "White Frog" trailer is extremely powerful. Do you have a favorite in this Showcase? Is there a dark horse that you think people will be surprised with?
Thanks! Most of the films this year had their world premieres at big festivals, 1 at Sundance, 3 at SXSW (South by Southwest), and the remaining 4 at SFIAAFF (San Francisco International Asian American Film Fest) so all had some kind of buzz. My favorite this year has to be “When I Walk” by Jason Da Silva (Sundance 2013). Jason was a filmmaker that we screened his films in the past, and then seemingly dropped off everyone’s radar. It was during this time he was diagnosed with MS (multiple sclerosis). “When I Walk” is his struggles and journey dealing with and living with his illness. It sounds sad but his enduring spirit and willingness to fight makes this story more enlightening and upbeat then dour.
As for a dark horse, it would have to be “The Crumbles” by Akira Boch. It’s such a fun-spirited rock and roll film that will keep you smiling!
There's a Next Generation Art Exhibit that is part of the Asian American Showcase. What's that? What's Next Generation mean here?
In addition to the film portion of the Showcase, we’ve been doing Visual Art and Gallery art shows too. Last year we had 3 going concurrently during the Festival. Larry Lee has been in charge of all our shows for the better part of a decade, and this year he appointed Yuna Baek to curate “Next Generation” - a group exhibition featuring works by current and former SAIC students along with faculty exploring the future of Asian American art in a digital age of flexible and hybrid cultural identity.
“What is the face of the next generation of Asian American artists? It might as well be an avatar, as the globalizing force of the Internet continues to build a cultural landscape that transcends location, ethnicity, gender, and language. The next generation of artists can log into any culture with a click of a mouse, and their personal identities (be it singular or multiple) are shaped by the limitless possibilities of the web. They build bridges between different cultures and communities, creating flexible and hybrid identities that define the Next Generation.“ Curated by Yuna Baek the exhibition features Kalani Largusa, Heelim Hwang, Sua Yoo, Eunie Kim, Hiba Ali, Arjuna Capulong, Catherine Yeon Soo Kim, Snow Yunxue Fu, Greyson Hong, Kiam Marcelo Junio, and Wang Frank Yefeng.
Can you recommend any Asian American filmmakers (at the Showcase or not) that people should check out?
Man, there are sooooo many that people should check out…that’s a crazy question! If you just look at our back catalog of former directors I couldn’t even tell you how many there are! 6 out of the 8 directors in this years festival have been featured in our past. There are so many talented people to check out, but a good place to start would be with Justin Lin / "Better Luck Tomorrow", Wayne Wang / "Chan is Missing", and Eric Byler / "Charlotte Sometimes" – all show Asian American’s as realistic 3 dimensional bad-ass characters, and that’s who we are!